The winners in Egypt’s first free election since World War Two are, in the words of prominent commentator Juan Cole, ‘the equivalent of the Tea Party’: conservative religious parties, of which the largest is the Muslim Brotherhood’s ‘front’, the Freedom and Justice Party. The even more conservative Nur Party, only recently set up by the Salafist movement (which hitherto has been opposed to political involvement, and opposed the January 2011 revolution), came second. Secular parties have done badly.
Cole comments, rather dispiritingly, ‘But until [the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which has ruled Egypt since the fall of Mubarak] can be sent back to the barracks... they do prevent the Brotherhood from instituting a theocracy.’ (Informed Comment, 7/1/12). In other words, the main thing standing in the way of an Islamic fundamentalist state is military rule.
Cole puts forward other factors, too. But the general point raises the central question posed by the ‘Arab Spring’, which has now resulted in two Islamist victories — in the two elections held as a result of it, Egypt and, earlier, Tunisia: is rule by Islamist parties the inevitable outcome of these revolutions? And what does such rule mean?
In many ways the bigger shock of the Egyptian elections is the strong showing for the Nur Party -- which has clearly rattled the Brotherhood itself. Commentators have long supposed that the Muslim Brothers were likely to win free elections in Egypt. Prior to the last -- outrageously (as opposed to routinely) rigged -- election, which the Brothers boycotted, they had 80 MPs in parliament, despite being technically illegal. They are a movement which has been organising for decades, and at the time of the revolt last January were, unarguably, the best-organised opposition in the country.
The Salafists -- who consider many Egyptian Muslims to be heretics, and who have deeply conservative attitudes on matters such as women’s rights -- had no organised political presence at all, indeed eschewing the very idea. The mosques allied with them told people not to participate in demonstrations. Yet they won nearly 25% of the vote in the first two rounds (behind the Brothers’ 45%).
The revolution in January was spearheaded by secular youth. A decisive factor, if not the decisive one, in the fall of Mubarak was a general strike by Egypt’s militant working class, which has, in the past year, organised a new, democratic trade union movement. The Brotherhood itself, though not as passive or hostile as the Salafists, was slow to involve itself in the revolution. Yet they are harvesting the results.
In part this must be simply a matter of organisation. The radical youth organisations have no history or experience at all of ground-level campaigning: their forte is Facebook. The bourgeois liberal parties, too, have had very little presence on the ground -- certainly not in the fashion of the Brotherhood, whose mainstay over decades has been ‘good works’ in poor neighbourhoods.
The new workers’ movement has concentrated on workplace organisation, strikes and so on, and has no political expression. The recently-formed, important but small Democratic Workers’ Party chose to boycott the elections. The Revolution Continues Coalition, which is dominated by a split from one of the chief components of the DWP, got 4% in the first round, which is, by the standards of such things, impressive. This fell to less than 1% in the second round. (Note that the ‘rounds’ here are due to a complex combination of votes being staggered in different areas and both first-past-the-post and party list systems; they are not ‘rounds’ in the manner of, for instance, French elections).
The Salafists, too, have a history of ‘good works’ in local neighbourhoods (which is one of the obligations of Islam). They are the local ‘ulema’ -- mullahs -- who people, especially in rural areas, are likely to vote for.
The Nur Party’s success, too, doubtless reflects a constituency which is tired of unrest, and perhaps never supported it anyway: throughout the events of January and February, the regime was anxious to point to the ‘silent majority’ -- and, demagogy aside, there is for sure some truth in the idea that many Egyptians were at best passive regarding the upheavals. The Nur gives them a chance to express that general conservatism.
Also, of course, Egypt remains a country mainly of Muslims (though there is a very large Christian minority). The Islamic parties appeal to a broad sense of Muslim identity.
The weakness of the left is hardly surprising. With the best will in the world, no small and beleaguered radical group can transform itself into a mass movement overnight. Indeed, it is testimony to those on the left who chose to concentrate on trade union organising that they have managed to build a mass movement in just a few months.
More significant is the terrible weakness of the secular liberal parties, which have come a poor third in these elections -- despite having the most prominent opposition spokespeople this time last year. Rivalries between liberal secular parties probably didn’t help: efforts to establish a single electoral coalition floundered very quickly.
But the fundamental character of the ‘Egyptian Bloc’, the main secular coalition, is revealed by this: its leader, Naguib Sawiris, is a billionaire.
The most pressing problems facing ordinary Egyptians are social and economic: very low wages (where wages have even been paid), poverty, poor housing, terrible education standards (a recent survey found that most Egyptians pay for private tuition for their children, stretching their already-inadequate incomes). When the chief opponent of the Islamists, supposedly offering an alternative to them, is led by a billionaire, it is less surprising if people vote for the Islamists.
Moreover, the secular liberals have, over the course of the year, become very hostile to workers’ struggles -- strikes, sit ins, and so on -- echoing the military’s attitude, which has declared them fi’wa, or ‘sectional’, ‘special interest’ struggles. The argument is that trade unions are selfishly taking advantage of a revolution which was simply about freedom...
This is an attitude which, of course, completely ignores the dire circumstances in which most people live. The Islamist parties, which routinely call for social justice, at least address these concerns even if what they say is next to meaningless.
In fact, very many people did not vote at all. The turn out in the first round was 59&. The second round saw a higher turn-out -- 65%; but in the subsequent run-offs this had fallen to 43%. The figures for the third round have not been released. It’s hard to know exactly what this shows -- but for sure voters were not much inspired by the mainstream political parties.
The high vote for the Nur Party will put some pressure on the Muslim Brotherhood, or rather its Freedom and Justice Party. There were signs of this during the election. The FJP had chosen, earlier, to drop the Brotherhood’s habitual slogan -- ‘Islam is the solution’ (for one thing because this is highly provocative to the Christian minority, and there have recently been fatally violent sectarian clashes). This slogan, however, re-emerged during the campaign, presumably in order better to compete with the Salafists.
But the Brotherhood is very unlikely to form any kind of alliance with the Salafists. Its general orientation in the last year has been to support the military government. Army sluggishness regarding the democratic transition forced a turn in this policy towards the end of the year; but the Brotherhood will remain anxious to keep on good terms with the SCAF. The Brotherhood has been extremely concerned not to appear radical and dangerous, both for fear of the army’s reaction, and because it has no desire to alienate the United States (which provides the army with $1.3 billion in aid every year).
A more likely political partner would be the old-style nationalist Wafd Party (with whom they have had electoral coalitions in the past). The Brotherhood, which has worked hard to develop as a modern political movement, sees the Salafists as dinosaurs.
In any case, as Juan Cole points out, winning the election is not the same as forming a government. The SCAF still holds power. The first job of the new parliament is to appoint a 100-strong body to draft a constitution, and the army will maintain control over that process. Presidential elections are to follow soon -- and it remains to be seen if the Islamist parties will do so well in them.
Military control, then, is certainly one factor holding back the Brotherhood. The other, for now, is their own political ambitions, fear of alienating the US, and fear also of an instability which would give the army an excuse to clamp down further. The Brotherhood kept away from recent protests, apparently, for precisely this reason: the fear that their involvement would be unnecessarily provocative to the ruling junta. If this is true it suggests a considerable degree of ‘nous’ which may be reflected in other aspects of policy.
There seems to be no immediate threat of a heavy clampdown -- by the Islamists -- on workers’ organisations and other democratic movements (which is not to say the army won’t continue to harass them, which it almost certainly will). The transition to some kind of ‘bourgeois democracy’ -- with a constitution, a parliament, a president, and with the army withdrawing (at least on the surface) to its barracks, seems likely.
The army’s recent return to severe repression is, on one level -- given their dependence on the US, which is not for now sympathetic to the gunning down of demonstrators -- surprising. Perhaps they calculate that the US has no option but to continue to support them, and the Islamists’ showing in the elections is strong evidence for that. But for the moment it does not seem likely that the military will launch a coup. They have introduced much repressive legislation in the last year that on the whole remains unused; at the same time as denouncing and attacking Tahrir Square demonstrators they bowed to popular pressure and removed an unpopular prime minister (although, ominously, replaced him with a man from the Mubarak gerontocracy). Still, the SCAF is allowing elections, has brought forward the presidential vote -- again as a result of popular pressure -- and shows no imminent signs of a root-and-branch crackdown. The popular movement is still much too strong, and Western eyes are still watching.
In that case the task facing the left and the labour movement is the painstaking building of a movement, on the industrial and political fronts, which can challenge the Islamists locally -- in the working-class districts, the slums and the villages. It will be a hard struggle, and the victory for the Islamists -- Brothers as well as Salafists -- will make life difficult. But so far this victory does not mean that the revolution has been lost.
On the contrary, there is growing impatience with the SCAF, and the last months of 2011 saw renewed popular struggle. This is still a revolutionary period, in the sense that things can move and change very quickly. Our job -- that of left activists and the labour movement internationally -- is to make sure we help.